How Nike's Green Design Recycled 82 Million Plastic Bottles

When Nike made the decision to start cutting its environmental impact -- with the eventual goal of closed-loop systems -- the company's leaders knew they had to start with their employees.

At the State of Green Business Forum in Chicago, Lorrie Vogel, the head of Nike Considered, discussed how the company addresses its biggest sustainability goals and how it hopes to make the next leap forward with help from its partners.

"We want to do more than less bad, what we want to do is create a vision on what does good ultimately look like for Nike," Vogel explained. "For us, it's about creating closed-loop products, taking materials from an old shoe and an old shirt, grinding it up and turning them into a new shoe, a new shirt."

State of Green Business

But the company also has big goals on reducing overall material use, on reducing toxics in their products, design products for recyclability, and more. The overarching idea is Nike Considered, an ethos for Nike's operations and products to do more than just less bad, but to do more good.

An ethos is only effective if everyone buys into it, so Nike developed tools and systems to give designers instant feedback on how their proposed products score on things like using environmentally preferred materials, reducing waste and toxic chemicals, increasing innovation, and the like.

That kind of instant feedback -- with potential alternatives that can be replaced to improve the impacts of a product -- form the heart of the Considered Index, and has led Nike's designers to make some big leaps forward on product innovations.

The company's World Cup jerseys for the 2010 South Africa games, for example, were made of 100 percent recycled polyester, with each jersey taking eight plastic bottles out of landfills. The net result of that one project alone was reusing 13 million plastic bottles, and showed what was possible with Nike's Considered ethos.

The cumulative impacts of Nike Considered are no less impressive. Vogen shared with the audience how Nike has fared on its goals of having 100 percent of its footwear products be Considered by 2011.

"From our vision, we smashed our target: we ended up where 98 percent of all our new product is going to be Considered," Vogel said. "We've reduced waste by 19 percent across the board within footwear. We've increased our use of environmentally preferred materials by 20 percent. And we have maintained our reductions in VOCs: 95 percent as a company."

That amount of waste reduction is the equivalent of simply not producing 15 million pairs of shoes. And Nike's overall use of recycled polyester, like for the World Cup jersey, doubled between 2009 and 2010, and has now taken 82 million plastic bottles out of landfills and back into the product stream.

As impressive as those achievements may be, of course, there is always more work to be done. And Nike hopes to make a step-change in what is possible through collaboration and sharing.

Vogel said that, as they were working on what turned out to be a $6 million tool in the Considered Index, Nike realized that many other companies were doing the same research and spending the same money, and that collaboration would make the whole process more efficient and more effective.

Inspired by the Creative Commons, Nike in 2009 launched the GreenXchange, a place where companies can share intellectual property, processes and ideas, and brainstorm greener solutions to shared challenges.

Much like the Internet, which Vogel said only became an interesting and useful platform once people began putting interesting information on it, GreenXchange will grow in utility as more companies take part.

To date, there are over 400 patents from Nike and its partners in the GreenXchange, and Vogel closed out her presentation by challenging the crowd to think of one patent or one piece of know-how that they think is valuable and would be made more valuable by being shared.

Photo by Goodwin Ogbuehi, http://flickr.com/photos/yoshikatsu.